You can also watch my reading vlog about Night Gaunts & HP Lovecraft's famous poem.

Throughout her writing career, Joyce Carol Oates’s fiction has frequently self-consciously tapped into the gothic and horror genres. She’s previously described how this form of writing seems to be linked to a quintessential kind of American experience born out of the country’s largely puritan roots. Examples of her fiction in this genre can be seen in many of Oates’s story collections and her 2013 novel THE ACCURSED is probably the most sustained instance of her utilizing this curious blend of horror, death, romance and a pleasing sort of terror. There are two established masters in particular Oates frequently references when discussing this form. In Oates’s 1996 NY Review of Books article titled ‘The King of Weird’ she observes that for “Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft the gothic tale would seem to be a form of psychic autobiography.” She goes on to observe how H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction appears to have been motivated by a particular kind of sensitive sensibility and a childhood overshadowed by his father’s severe mental illness, prejudices and early death from syphilis. From a young age Lovecraft was plagued by nightmares that were populated by a monstrous race of entities he labeled “night-gaunts” who were faceless beings that snatched him up and terrorized him. Lovecraft wrote a poem about these creatures which Oates includes in the epigraph of her story collection which is also called NIGHT GAUNTS.

This entire collection is inflected with the twisted imagination and preoccupations of Lovecraft, but rather than depicting fantastical worlds they are stories set in starkly realistic and (mostly) contemporary settings. In fact, the titular story which ends the book is a tribute to and a fictional re-imagining of Lovecraft’s life. This story vividly invokes the difficult experiences which shaped him and influenced his creative imagination from his reading about the hellish landscape of Dante’s Inferno to browsing the terrifying drawings of Felicien Rops. Interestingly, she describes how the only way he could keep the horrors which plagued him at bay was to render the haunting images and wild scenarios of his nightmares into fictional forms. It’s a striking depiction of the artistic process and as his craft develops, “he had no need to commemorate the night-gaunts that haunted him, but could create his own.” Oates’s story itself is also a suspenseful tale of horror where Lovecraft is entrapped in a circular kind of nightmare which makes him a simultaneous witness and victim of his past plagued by feelings of grief, loneliness and fear.

Oates has previously fictionally rendered the lives of famous authors in her short fiction, most notably in her collection WILD NIGHTS! These tantalizing tales function both as a fictional homage to some of Oates’s primary influences as well as a way of reckoning with the problematic aspects of these authors’ ideas and beliefs. The story ‘Night-Gaunts’ itself makes candid references to Lovecraft’s prejudice against Jewish and non-white people and grapples with the seeming contradiction of how (as Oates describes in the ‘The King of Weird’) “Lovecraft was unfailingly kind, patient, generous, unassuming, and gentlemanly in his personal relations; yet, in keeping with his Tory sensibility, an anti-Semite (despite his deep affection for Sonia Greene and other Jewish friends), racist, and all-purpose Aryan bigot.” A kind of disguised or shrouded racism is described in a few of the stories in this collection including a neglected wife who takes solace in connecting to white supremacists online and a young Asian scientist cognizant of the stereotypes projected onto him from his colleagues and romantic partner/test subject. 

 Félicien Rops, La parodie humaine (1878)

Félicien Rops, La parodie humaine (1878)

In Lovecraft’s poem he states how his night-gaunts fail to “wear a face where faces should be found” and in Oates’s stories there are fascinating examples of individuals who are described as faceless. A central character in a story will turn someone they encounter into a faceless “other” who then becomes their antagonist. The fact that the protagonists literally don’t recognize the facial features of these characters dangerously denies them of their humanity. The opening story ‘The Woman in the Window’ fictionally imagines the scenario of Edward Hopper’s famous painting ‘Eleven A.M.’ (Incidentally, this painting is the cover image on the hardback edition of Oates’s previous story collection BEAUTIFUL DAYS.) In this painting, the naked woman’s face is obscured by the hair falling in front of her face. Oates’s story describes how she is an aging secretary who has become a nuisance and terror to the married boss who keeps her as a lover. In the story ‘The Long-Legged Girl’ a wife suspects that a young female student is having an affair with her husband who teaches her and she describes how the girl’s “long straight silver-blonde hair fell about her face shimmering like a falls.” Despite the girl describing her difficulties and innocent reverence for her husband, the wife refuses to see her as anything other than a seductress. In the story ‘Walking Wounded’ a cancer-survivor who returns to his home town continuously encounters/stalks a woman with “silvery hair” and at one point he observes how “Her long, tangled hair falls forward, hiding her face, which seems to him an aggrieved face, though he cannot see it clearly.” The climax of the story powerfully depicts a violent clash where the protagonist’s fantasy about this woman collapses. All of these stories meaningfully portray the way Lovecraft’s unconscious technique of making faceless demons out of people we fear leads to disconnection and egregious violence.

A wonderful nail-biting sense of suspense is created in these stories when the line between reality and nightmares blur. This sometimes occurs when there is an ambiguity about whether the protagonist is a perpetrator or victim. In ‘Walking Wounded’ the main character is working on laboriously editing a lengthy nonfiction book and keeps finding descriptions of violence against women inserted in the text. (Whether it is the text book’s author or the protagonist who wrote them is unclear.) In ‘Sign of the Beast’ a boy is made to feel incredibly self-conscious in the presence of his new Sunday school teacher who teases and may molest him. Much later, when the teacher is eventually found dead, the boy feels certain he must have committed the crime though the law enforcement insists he played no part. These uncertainties about guilt form a suspenseful read, but also poignantly portray the psychological reality of the characters whose sense of logic breaks down.

In the most ambitious and lengthy story in this collection ‘The Experimental Subject’ a naïve young nursing student is unknowingly enlisted in an outrageous biological experiment. A group of scientists entrap her and manipulate her for the purposes of their study. This story playfully pits the ambitions of man against biological advancement and ideas about evolution. It also meaningfully portrays the plights of two frequently scorned segments of the population: the working class and racial minorities. The breadth and ambition of this novella feels almost cinematic in scope. It’s a fine example of how Oates’s fiction can travel to the wildest corners of our imaginations and artfully dramatize the simmering preoccupations of America. These stories skilfully invoke the tortured imagination of Lovecraft and form utterly compelling modern tales of suspense.

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
BeautifulDays.jpg

For all the daring stylistic variations and rich diversity of subject matter found in Beautiful Days, Joyce Carol Oates’s latest collection of short stories, there is a common theme throughout of disruptively close encounters with the “other.” At the Key West Literary Seminar in 2012, Oates gave a talk titled ‘Close Encounters with the Other’ and in this session she describes how “There comes a time in our lives when we realize that other people are not projections of ourselves - that we can’t really identify with them. We might sympathize or empathize with them, but we can’t really know them fully. They are other and they are opaque.” So in these stories characters strive for connections which often tragically break down. These encounters document the awkward or sometimes violent clashes that occur between individuals who are so dissimilar there is an unbreachable rupture in understanding. The factors that divide these characters include issues such as romantic intention, gender, age, race, class, education and nationality. Oates creates a wide array of situations and richly complex characters to show the intense drama that arises from clashes surrounding these subjects.

Some stories take fascinatingly different angles on the question of trust and the durability of love within romantic affairs or long-term marriages. In ‘Fleuve Bleu’ two married individuals initiate an affair with a declaration that they will maintain complete honesty. Yet there are fundamental issues left unsaid which motivate one individual to abruptly bring their affair to a halt. Here descriptions of the environment strikingly emote the passion of their connection and erotic encounters. A couple at cross-purposes is also portrayed in 'Big Burnt' where a weekend tryst to an island is initiated because Lisbeth wants to make Mikael love her, but Mikael wants a woman to witness his suicide. Whereas in 'The Bereaved' it feels as if the female protagonist was taken on as a wife only to care for the husband’s motherless child. The child’s early death precipitates a feeling of her role being taken away as well as deep feelings of guilt which manifest in a fascinatingly dramatic way while the couple embark on an ecological cruise. The stories suggest that no matter the passion or fervour of a couple’s connection there is an element of unknowability about one’s partner which makes itself known in the course of time.

Other stories describe class and racial conflicts between teachers and pupils. In 'Except You Bless Me' a Detroit English teacher named Helen earnestly tries to tutor her pupil Larissa despite strongly suspecting this student is leaving her aggressively racist messages. This is an interesting variation from a section of Oates's novel Marya where the protagonist encounters slyly aggressive behaviour from black janitor Sylvester at the school where she teaches. Both are expressions of the quandary a white individual might have faced at this time of Detroit history when racial tensions ran high. Helen makes little progress in her tutoring and then, many years later, finds herself in a vulnerable position with a woman she imagines to be Larissa as an adult. Like in 'The Bereaved', the protagonist is somewhat aware of her own prejudices, but is nevertheless drawn into paranoid fantasies. However, the wife of 'The Bereaved' is prejudiced not about race, but the obesity and perceived stupidity of a family aboard the cruise ship. Fascinatingly, she thinks of this family as like people who might be photographed by Diane Arbus in contrast to other groups on the ship who are like “Norman Rockwell families”. The central characters in these stories turn certain people they encounter into antagonists because there is an “otherness” about them which they can’t overcome.

Intergenerational conflicts which are described in some other stories are centred around a parent/child relationship. In 'Owl Eyes' teenager Jerald appears to have some form of autism where he has very advanced abilities in mathematics and experiences feelings of panic when there are deviations from his fixed routines. He regularly travels to a university campus to attend a calculus class, but when a man approaches him claiming to be his estranged father Jerald can’t reconcile how this man might fit into the narrative created by his single mother. Jerald is reluctant to engage with memory because, unlike math, it is uncertain and has an inherent malleability: “Memories return in waves, overwhelming. You can drown in memories.” Memory is distorted in the tremendously ambitious story 'Fractal' which is also about a mother and her son. At the beginning of this story the characters are only referred to as “the mother” and “the child” as if these identity roles supersede any individuality that would grant them names. “The mother” indulges her child’s specialist interest by taking him to a (fictional) Fractal Museum in Portland, Maine. As the pair explore the museums exhibits, multiple versions of their reality are gradually introduced until “the mother” is confronted with a true past that she’s wholly denied.

A very different kind of teacher/pupil relationship is depicted in 'The Quiet Car' where an arrogant male teacher/writer reflects on his declining literary fame and an adoring female student who he viewed in a disparaging way. When he bumps into this student again many years later he’s confronted by how his conception of himself has been overly inflated. Oates has recently shown a particular knack for excoriating the pompous egos of celebrated male authors/artists in her fiction. Most notably this can be seen in her collection Wild Nights! and her controversial depiction of Robert Frost in the short story ‘Lovely, Dark Deep’. However, Oates constructs a more playful tribute to a particular author’s ambition and his lasting impact in her story 'Donald Barthelme Saved From Oblivion'. Here she memorably describes the writing process as like walking over and over across a high wire and makes acute observations about the meaning and endurance of art.

BeautifulDays2.jpg

The vivid and intense story 'Les Beaux Jours' contains a much sharper critique of the problematic nature of artist Balthus’s famous painting. Here the reader inhabits the troubled psyche of the girl depicted in this artwork who is like an enslaved fairy tale heroine while simultaneously existing as a girl from a broken affluent NYC home. As with many stories in the second section of this collection, this story slides into the surreal as does the brief and powerfully haunting story ‘The Memorial Field at Hazard, Minnesota’. Here the author’s condemnation for the tyrannical nature of ego-driven politicians sees a former president forcibly condemned to the hellish task of digging up graves of those who were victims of his poor policies and warmongering.

Oates creatively engages with the politics of immigration in what is probably the most radical story in this collection 'Undocumented Alien'. Here a Nigerian-born young man J.S. Maada enters into a secret governmental psychological experiment rather than face deportation. A chip planted in his brain causes a “radical destabilization of temporal and spatial functions of cognition” and results in him believing that he’s an agent from planet Jupiter's moon Ganymede. This leads to paranoid fantasies and a horrific confrontation with the white lady who employs him as a gardener. It’s tremendously poignant that the way J.S. Maada is manipulated, persecuted and discarded is indicative of how an intolerant section of white America reacts to “otherness.”

This collection of stories seems to possess an urgency and anger influenced by current American politics. It never ceases to amaze me how Oates continually pushes boundaries and orchestrates a dialogue around some of the most pressing matters in society today. In addition to how these stories address many dramatic instances of confrontations with the “other”, they also possess an impressive diversity in their style and form. The bold variety of narratives in this collection continuously surprise and delight. Much of the fiction in Beautiful Days is longer than a typical short story. With several stories tipping into lengths considered to be a novella, it feels that many could easily expand out into novels. Given that Oates’s forthcoming novel (currently titled) My Life as a Rat is based off her short story ‘Curly Red’, it will be interesting to see if the author chooses to build upon any of the short fiction in Beautiful Days. However, the stories in this collection stand firmly on their own with all their startling psychological insight and bracing depictions of tragic conflict. 

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Oates’s writing has always surveyed the social landscape of American culture, but recently her novels have become more sharply defined by the most significant political debates in the country. These include her novel The Falls which fictionalizes the infamous Love Canal environmental tragedy, My Sister, My Love which fictionalizes the media sensation of JonBenet Ramsey’s story, Carthage which explores the overcrowded penitentiary system and The Sacrifice which fictionalizes the case of Tawana Brawley who was allegedly the victim of racist police brutality. These dramatic stories consider how class, politics, religion, law and the media shape the pressing ideological conflicts within American society. A Book of American Martyrs directly addresses the highly controversial subject of abortion. It begins with the execution of abortion doctor Gus Voorhees and his volunteer driver by zealous pro-life protestor Luther Dunphy who is affiliated with the Army of God, a Christian terrorist organization. The novel recounts this incident from a variety of perspectives, the lives of the victims and the shooter as well as the way it affects their families in the decades that follow. In doing so, Oates artfully presents a nuanced account of the tragic consequences of bad logic and extreme opinions.

The title is a play on the 16th century text Book of Martyrs by John Foxe which was an influential polemic recounting the sufferings of Protestants under the Catholic Church in England and Scotland. Oates similarly shows subjective points of view on the sacrifices and perceived injustices suffered by the protagonists by presenting italicized first-person accounts from a variety of peripheral characters. These testimonies build to a chorus of opinions surrounding the case and transform mere individuals who died because of their beliefs into icons of a particular cause. Despite repeated threats made against of his life, Gus Voorhees bravely persevered working in women's clinics in areas of the country that actively protested against abortion. Luther Dunphy realised he was giving up his life by executing the abortion doctor he considered a murderer so that “in some quarters, among avid Christians, Dunphy was revered as a kind of hero, a ‘soldier of Jesus’ and a ‘martyr.’” In this way, subsequent to their fates, both men transformed from mortals to symbols within the public consciousness.

In the first half of the novel Oates shows how both these men are more complicated than the ideas that they come to embody. Luther and his wife Edna Mae’s youngest daughter Daphne is born with a debilitating mental handicap. She dies in a car crash which may or may not have been an accident; the question which Luther can’t even seem to ask himself is whether it would have been better to abort this daughter before her birth if they were aware of her severe handicap. Rather than pursue the intricacies of his problems he becomes more pious and secretly satisfies his sexual cravings in clandestine meetings with women in motels. Here is the grating hypocrisy of the zealous: Luther condemns women who get abortions while not taking responsibility for having sex with anonymous women. It reveals an innate sexism within arguments about abortion. Alternatively, Gus seeks to assist women from Christian backgrounds that are fervently opposed to abortion. But, in one case, he finds himself publicly accused of coercing a woman to abort her baby after she begged him for assistance. The question of choice is considered from many different angles through the various strands of both men’s lives.

The novel also shows other forms of martyrdom in figures such as Voorhees' driver Timothy who is also shot down. Later in the novel his daughter angrily declares “It was VOORHEES that was the martyr. On the anti-abortion websites it was stated that Timothy Barron’s death was COLLATERAL DAMAGE and in a war COLLATERAL DAMAGE is to be regretted but not to be avoided.” Although Timothy was merely a bystander in this conflict and his loss interjects another level of moral complexity, ironically his death fades more quickly in the minds of the public. In a sense, the widows of both Gus and Luther sacrifice themselves to the memories of their husbands. Edna Mae becomes addicted to pain killers and strengthens her resolve as a pro-life Christian participating in a macabre spectacle where aborted fetuses are recovered from abortion clinics and buried. Conversely, Gus's widow Jenna withdraws entirely from her children to devote herself to legal work even at the expense of her wellbeing: “the more ravaged Jenna appeared, the more of a martyr.” In both cases the family unit is obliterated as a result of grief and the continuing ideological battle.

The eldest daughters of both families inherit the fallout from the conflict their parents were embroiled in. The second half of the novel is primarily concerned with following their journeys as young adults. Luther’s daughter Dawn is sympathetically portrayed as a victim of physical and sexual assault at her school. Her sturdy physique and endurance for pain prompt her to fight back and transform herself into a promising welterweight boxer with the name D.D. Dunphy Hammer of Jesus. As a deeply solitary individual, she persists in her faith despite being rejected by Edna Mae. Some of the most tender and heartfelt scenes in the novel are when Dawn shyly tries to connect with women she admires, possibly out of a latent homosexuality. Gus’s daughter Naomi enjoys the privilege of education and more financial security, but her upbringing is no more emotionally secure than Dawn’s. She scrambles to create a personal archive memorializing Gus’s life and only achieves a meaningful family connection in her estranged grandmother Madelena Kein, a professor of philosophy, and a complex challenging figure Karl Kinch. It’s possible for the reader to reconsider the entire narrative as being the product of Naomi’s research after we learn that she aspires to become a documentary filmmaker.

Despite the way individuals flounder and are felled amidst the deeply divisive ideological battle at the centre of this novel, the enduring impression of this finely detailed story is hopeful. The new generation may have been wronged and abandoned by the proceeding one, but these brave daughters hunger for insight and connections across the divide nonetheless. They find it difficult to work through the prejudice they’ve inherited and their challenging development is laced with grief so that even the sound of a walking stick on a hike can conjure the pain of everything that was lost with their fathers. However, they possess an innate curiosity and resilience which Oates is particularly skilful at portraying in young female characters. A Book of American Martyrs doesn’t seek to answer the question of how extremism can be overcome, but memorialize how individuals can evolve to see past the views of their limited perspective to that of another. 

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Joyce Carol Oates is such a prolific writer that it may surprise some of her readers to discover that she is also a committed and voracious reader. It’s easy to imagine the perennial question which Oates is asked “How do you write so much?” being quickly followed by “How do you read so much?” Soul at the White Heat is a sustained and fascinating collection of nonfiction chronicling not only her reflections as a writer, but her engagement with a wide range of books by authors —some of whom are “classics” and others “contemporaries.” Every analysis or review Oates gives of a single book is scattered with mentions of that author’s other publications as well as a wide variety of other writers and books which provide enlightening points of reference. The collection is filled primarily with book reviews, so the subtitle “Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life” clues the reader into how the compulsion to write is inextricably linked to the desire to read widely and rigorously. Because this collection comes from a writer of such productivity and stature, it can be read in two ways. The first is as an astute survey of writing from some of the greatest past and present practitioners of the craft. The second is as a supplement to Oates’s own fiction, providing fascinating insights into how her perspective on other writing might relate to her past publications. However, underlying this entire anthology is the question of why writers feel inspired to write and what compels us to keep reading.

For some writers, Oates gives an informative overview of that author’s complete output. There is the “weird” writing of H.P. Lovecraft or the “bold and intriguing” detective fiction of Derek Raymond both of which lead Oates to make intriguing observations about the nature of genre. Another section gives a broad look at the life and work of famously prolific author Georges Simenon with a special consideration for the memoirist nature of one of his pivotal novels. In one of the most personal pieces Oates recounts a visit and interview she conducted with Doris Lessing in 1972 where she considers Lessing’s psychologically realist fiction alongside her audacious science fiction. Oates nobly raises the stature of some lesser known writers such as Lucia Berlin by drawing comparisons between her “zestfully written, seemingly artless” short stories and the firmly established writing of Charles Bukowski, Grace Paley, and Raymond Carver.

Oates has taught literature and writing for most of her life and in several pieces it’s possible to gauge her academic nature to inspire and provoke more nuanced thinking. Such is the case in one of the opening essays where she meticulously dissects the “anatomy of a story.” In “Two American Prose Masters” she makes a sharply analytical critique of how tense is used in a short story by John Updike and contrasts this with a heartrending story by Ralph Ellison. At other times she questions how style and form are related to subject matter. For instance, when considering Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest she asks if a postmodernist use of irony excludes emotion no matter how devastating or “mighty” the subject matter. In considering the “detached and ironic tone” of much of Margaret Drabble’s fiction she prompts the reader to ask how this reflects contemporary English culture and feminism. As much as making judgements throughout these numerous essays and reviews, Oates draws readers to more attentively question how they read fiction.

As a critic, Oates shows a great deal of empathy towards the artfulness employed by the vast array of writers she discusses in this book. If negative points are made they are often balanced by something positive. However, she certainly doesn't shy away from pointing out severe failings in either authors or their books. Such is the case with H.P. Lovecraft who for all the wonder of his gothic imagination was “an antiSemite . . . racist, and all-purpose Aryan bigot” and she observes how “For all his intelligence and aesthetic theorizing, Lovecraft was, like Poe, a remarkably uneven writer.” When reviewing the novel The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler and Tyler's parochial portrait of the diverse city of Baltimore she surmises that “the fiction is determinedly old-fashioned, 'traditional' and conservative; it takes no risks, and confirms the wisdom of risklessness.” In the case of Karen Joy Fowler whose novel We Are Completely Beside Ourselves Oates admires as “boldly exploratory” she nonetheless considers it a misjudgement to limit the novel's point of view to the first person. She circumvents even mentioning Fowler's novel for the first five pages of the review by embarking on a fascinating consideration of Darwin and animal rights.

Oates doesn’t strictly limit herself to the realm of fiction in her criticism. She also reviews nonfiction and autobiography. These range from what might be the new definitive biography of Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin to Margaret Atwood’s overview of science fiction In Other Worlds (where Oates cites the notable absence of Doris Lessing) to Jeanette Winterson’s memoir about her attempted suicide. When considering an “unauthorized” biography of Joan Didion titled The Last Love Song by Tracy Daugherty, Oates considers the evolution of Didion’s writing and how in her journalism she finds “a perfect conjunction of reportorial and memoirist urges.” Sometimes Oates asks how real-life relationships between writers and artists influence their output. When surveying the published letters between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz she wonders if it weren’t for Stieglitz’s influence whether O’Keeffe would still have achieved her deserved legacy as an American icon of the art world. There is also an essay which contemplates the difficult later years of Mike Tyson in the book Undisputed Truth as well as a review of the film The Fighter where Oates draws upon her considerable knowledge of boxing to critique the way the film misses out on the athletic art form of the sport. It’s easy to see why Oates was motivated to write about these last two examples because of the sustained interest in the sport she’s shown throughout her career in both her fiction such as her most recent novel A Book of American Martyrs and her slim nonfiction book On Boxing.

 The title is taken from a Dickinson poem "Dare You See a Soul At The White Heat?" In this photo Oates is dressed as Emily Dickinson.

The title is taken from a Dickinson poem "Dare You See a Soul At The White Heat?" In this photo Oates is dressed as Emily Dickinson.

There are many pieces in Soul at the White Heat which will intrigue the avid reader of Oates’s oeuvre for how the subjects and writing styles she discusses relate to her own work. For example, Oates is highly sympathetic with Derek Raymond’s “existential pilgrim as detective, the object of his inquiry nothing less than the meaning of life itself.” This is both a mode of writing and character type she also used in her exemplary post-modernist detective novel Mysteries of Winterthurn. There is also a very considered review of Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Kind Words Saloon where he realistically renders the now mythic figures of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday just as Oates sought to reimagine the girl behind the legend of Marilyn Monroe in her monumental novel Blonde. Oates admires the different slant on Dickinson’s life Jerome Charyn takes in his novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson which is interesting to consider alongside Oates’s extremely imaginative short story “EDickinsonRepliLuxe” where she gives the classic American poet a second life as a computerized mannequin. When writing about Lorrie Moore's distinctive short stories Oates pays particular attention to two stories which rewrite particular tales by Vladimir Nabokov and Henry James (writers whose stories Oates has also previously created her own versions of). Despite there being many parallels in themes between her own work and these other writers, Oates tactfully never references her own fiction.

Soul at the White Heat opens with four somewhat candid pieces about the writing process and her own “credo” as an artist. It's possible to see how she holds to her “several overlapping ideals” when looking back at both her fiction and the way she critiques other writer's books. In Oates's writing room she reflects how her younger self would feel “stunned” that she would produce so many books when “each hour's work feels so anxiously wrought and hard-won.” From the confined space of the study this anthology ends by moving out into “real life” with a touching, vividly detailed essay about a visit Oates undertook to San Quentin prison where she admits her idealistic urge “To learn more about the world. To be less sheltered. To be less naïve. To know.” Although this is not mentioned in the piece, Oates was subsequently inspired to help bring the stories of prisoners to the public consciousness by editing the extremely engaging anthology Prison Noir. For an author who writes so infrequently about her own life (recent memoirs A Widow’s Story and The Lost Landscape being notable exceptions) it’s refreshing to meet Oates’s voice when unmediated by the guise of fiction. Here is someone so “inspired” and “obsessed” with the boundless excitement and vertiginous joy to be found in great literature that she is motivated to devote so much time to the activity of reading when she’s not writing her own fiction. Perhaps this is the real answer to that oft-asked question of how Oates has produced over one hundred books of fiction. It’s not about how it’s done; it’s about why she does it.

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson

In her introduction to the anthology American Gothic Tales (1996) which Joyce Carol Oates edited she pays tributes to the gothic tradition in American literature bourn out of a crisis in the Puritan consciousness. She detailed how writers such as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and H.P. Lovecraft wrote unsettling fiction in which “the ‘supernatural’ and the malevolent ‘unconscious’ have fused” and how Lovecraft, in particular, has a compulsion in his fiction “to approach the horror that is a lurid twin of one’s self, or that very self seen in an unsuspected mirror.” Such a crisis in consciousness where the real and unreal intermingle to produce horrific results is adeptly-realized in the six unsettling and mesmerizing tales contained in Oates’ new book The Doll Master and Other Tales of Terror.

Reading about characters such as a lonely boy whose sister died of a rare disease, a diligent adolescent girl entrusted with house-sitting a beloved teacher’s upscale residence or a wife who ardently desires to be a loving companion to her charismatic husband, we want to believe and trust these sympathetic individuals. Even when taken into the point of view of a white man imprisoned for shooting dead an unarmed black boy, we guardedly hope that there has simply been a misunderstanding as he so vehemently insists. We do this in order to preserve our belief in people’s essential “innocence” and “goodness”. We’re invited in these stories to connect with these characters’ experiences - sometimes in a bracingly direct manner such as this passage in the title story: “All your life, you yearn to return to what has been. You yearn to return to those you have lost. You will do terrible things to return, which no one else can understand.” The involved reader will hesitantly survey his own emotionally conflicted experience as well as fearfully wondering what lengths the cryptic narrator has gone to assuage his own painful feelings about his past. Here is the perverse pleasure of these stories which become so personally involving it’s as if we see the horrific consequences created from our own darkest compulsions (albeit within the “safe” realm of fiction).

Oates has a masterful way of leading us through the consciousness of the troubled individuals at the centre of these stories so that heartfelt sympathy is gradually replaced by guarded unease and, eventually, by a terrifying repulsion. Paranoia leads the characters to conclusions which make them act in a way to justify reprehensible actions. Their fear often comes from social issues such as drug abuse, economic inequality, racial divisions or child kidnapping. The narrator of the story ‘Soldier’ remarks how “Uncle T. has told me This country is at war. But it is not a war that is declared and so we can't protect ourselves against our enemies.” Destructive divisions are created by ideological notions passed down by political rhetoric, extreme religious institutions or inflammatory media sources to create an “us” and “them” mentality where the characters feel drawn into taking extreme action to defend against insidious encroaching forces. At other times, paranoia arises in a more domestic setting from problems that seem sadly endemic of the human condition like a fear that those we love will eventually betray us.

Many stories contain surprising and satisfying twists worthy of the most compulsively-readable tales of Poe or Agatha Christie. Unexpectedly the hunter might become the hunted. Those who seemed well-meaning or benign become frightfully sinister. What felt like sure fact turns out to be fiction formed in a character’s deluded mind. Oates finds inventive methods for keeping the reader on their toes. She invokes the methods of this genre’s great masters while building upon them with issues current to today. “Mystery, Inc” pays the most playful tribute to the suspense genre as it is set in a rural bookstore which contains enticing treasured editions from some of America’s greatest writers. It also allows Oates to engage with a meditation upon the genre itself as a touchstone for our most personal philosophical concerns. The shop’s gregarious owner states that “It is out of the profound mystery of life that ‘mystery books’ arise. And, in turn, ‘mystery books’ allow us to see the mystery of life more clearly, from perspectives not our own.”

 "the lonely Siamese cat appeared in the kitchen doorway staring at me with icy blue eyes" from 'Gun Accident: An Investigation'

"the lonely Siamese cat appeared in the kitchen doorway staring at me with icy blue eyes" from 'Gun Accident: An Investigation'

Another story 'Big Momma' has the tenderly emotional and creeping sinister feel of a fairy tale. An insecure middle school student named Violet who has recently moved with her working single mother to a new area ingratiates herself with a welcoming close-knit family run by a single father. She’s rebellious against her mother and seduced by the caring affection of her friend’s father. Although she becomes naturally wary of something unsettling about her new adopted family, she is seduced by the acceptance she finds with them which feeds her emotionally and physically. The startling outcome and imagery invoked by this parable of young adulthood produces a distinctly haunting feeling.

Oates has previously invoked elements of genre fiction in multiple novels and story collections. These range from novels of ambitious literary scope such as her gothic quintet of books which she first began publishing in the early 80s with the family saga Bellefleur (1980) and only recently completed with the historical gothic-horror novel The Accursed (2013). Some story collections approach genre in a more straightforward manner such as her books Haunted (1994) and The Collector of Hearts (1998) which indulge in sinister stories of the “Grotesque”. Last year she produced Jack of Spades: A Tale of Suspense (2015) which takes the form of a thrilling story about author-rivalry and pseudonyms. With The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror, Oates has created unique, gripping stories which take us to the most extreme edges of what people are capable of when logic breaks down and their minds are plagued by virulent emotions. The terror comes from knowing that with a twist of fate their stories could become our own.

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

Strong love stories drive many of the greatest novels of all time, but the love story in The Man Without a Shadow is remarkably unusual and haunting. From this tale Joyce Carol Oates raises probing questions about the nature of love and the phenomenon of consciousness. Elihu Hoops - a charismatic man from a prominent wealthy family and ardent civil rights activist - experiences an acute inflammation of the brain in 1964 which causes him to lose all short-term memory. He is incapable of remembering anything new for more than seventy seconds. His condition can never be cured because of irreparable damage to the hippocampus area of his brain which is responsible for the formation of new memories. In the proceeding decades he’s regularly taken to a university’s research facility or “Memory Lab” where groups of neuroscientists engage him with tests to better understand the biological connection between the brain and memory. Even though this is for the betterment of society and human knowledge, the question lingers if Elihu is being exploited. One of the scientists Margot Sharpe builds an entire career out of working closely with the amnesiac. The connection she forms with him over a lifetime turns into a strikingly original romance.

Read my full review on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies: http://repository.usfca.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1019&context=jcostudies

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Joyce Carol Oates has written an extraordinary number of exceptional novels, short stories, poems and plays. When she has written in her own unmediated voice it has usually been in the form of book reviews, essays, or extended non-fiction on subjects such as boxing or artists. Rarely does she write directly about her own personal life or development as a writer, with the notable exception of her memoir A Widow's Story (2011) about the death of her husband Raymond Smith, told mostly in journal form. So it’s surprising and exciting that Oates has assembled various pieces of autobiographical writing to form this memoir about her childhood, The Lost Landscape.

The book is organized in roughly chronological order from Oates’s earliest youth to the death of her parents in their old age. In one of the earliest sections Oates makes the stylistically-radical choice of narrating from the perspective of her pet “Happy Chicken.” This is a highly playful and entertaining way of approaching the largely impressionistic memories she has of her earliest youth. However, this chapter also hints at the formation of some of Oates’s most primal beliefs about the way gender roles and social relationships are played out in this tender portrait of family life. As with much of Oates’s great literature, some of the most ardent power struggles in society are played out in micro form—in this case through the example of rural farming life.

Oates recollects powerful episodes about a neighboring family called the Judds. Unlike the relatively happy family unit found in Oates’s household, the Judds were hampered by issues of alcoholism, spousal abuse, and severe poverty. Of course, at the time, these issues were not labelled as such. An attentive reader will see in this family and the Judd’s daughter who was Oates’s friend characteristics and conflicts found in much of the author’s fiction. Oates points out that “they tell us everything about ourselves and even the telling, the exposure, is a kind of radical cutting, an inscription in the flesh.” The struggles and hardships of this specific family stand for something universal about the human condition. By witnessing and empathizing with such struggle we are changed and indelibly marked.

There is a confessional aspect to some chapters which concern enduring personal mysteries or things not often talked about among Oates’s family. This includes an account of a college friend who was plagued by destructive insecurities and eventually committed suicide. The lingering pain is felt in Oates's emphatic connection to her lost friend: “You are as much myself as another. You are myself.” The sense of being a twin or the lucky half of a single being is felt even more intensely in the heartbreaking chapter about Oates’s much younger and severely-autistic sister Lynn. This doubling is even more evident because the sisters possess such physical similarities and were born on the same day of the year. Oates reflects how her sister is “A mirror-self, just subtly distorted. Sistertwin, separated by eighteen years.” One could make connections between these autobiographical passages and Oates’s frequent preoccupation with twins in her writing. More broadly, these feelings of empathy with those who are so similar to the author herself but who experienced a different fate reinforce Oates’s message throughout her writing that our existence is so often determined by mere chance.

Some of the most endearing passages in this memoir are about Oates’s burgeoning love of books. One chapter memorializes her experience of first being given an illustrated copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by her grandmother, and in another chapter she recalls the excitement of receiving her first library card. Any lover of reading will connect to Oates’s impassioned discovery of literature. Even when she tried to decipher books beyond her understanding she states: “Stubbornly I read even when I had only a vague idea of what I was reading.” Part of the process of learning is humbling yourself before what you read, to argue with it and puzzle over the possible meanings. It’s reassuring to discover that like all students Oates struggled with some literature, but she also found it exhilarating as she eloquently describes here: “It was thrilling to undertake such bouts of reading, as in a plunge into unfathomable depths of the ocean; it was thrilling and also terrifying, for at such depths one could not easily breathe, and the more desperate one was to concentrate one’s thoughts, the more likely one’s thoughts were to break and scatter like panicked birds from a tree.” This intense engagement with literature sympathetically demonstrates why endeavouring to understand the world through books can be frustrating but can feel like the only thing an intellectually engaged person can do.

Oates raises questions about the nature of memory and the somewhat faulty medium of memoir writing to adequately represent the past. She states: “the effort of writing a memoir is so fraught with peril, and even its small successes ringed by melancholy. The fact is—We have forgotten most of our lives. All of our landscapes are soon lost in time.” Therefore, rather than constructed as a straightforward narrative, the memoir is based around Oates’s recollections of members of her family, particular incidents, or significant objects such as photographs or letters which provide a touchstone to the past. One of the most intriguing and significant chapters, “Headlights: The First Death,” recounts a childhood obsession with sneaking out of her house in the middle of the night to sit by a roadside watching the lights of passing cars. In this section she gives a powerful meditation on the state of being alone and an observer of the world with all its stories and mysteries: “I love it that our lives are not so crudely determined as some might wish them to be, but that we appear, and reappear, and again reappear, as unpredictably to ourselves as to those who would wish to oppress us.” This is a tremendously empowering statement about the strength we can find in such solitude regardless of how others may perceive us.

The Lost Landscape gives a powerful depiction of the author’s early life, yet it is also a meditation on the process of writing itself and hints at reasons for Oates’s ardent engagement with writing as a form of memorializing the past. She notes the quixotic nature of her drive to create stories: “It may be that the writer/artist is stimulated by childhood mysteries or that it is the childhood mysteries that stimulate the writer/artist. Sometimes in my writing, when I am most absorbed and fascinated, to the point of anxiety, I find myself imagining that what I am inventing is in some way ‘real’; if I can solve the mystery of the fiction, I will have solved a mystery of my life. That the mystery is never solved would seem to be the reason for the writer’s continuous effort to solve it—each story, each poem, each novel is a restatement of the quest to penetrate the mystery, tirelessly restated. The writer is the decipherer of clues—if by ‘clues’ is meant a broken and discontinuous subterranean narrative.” There’s no doubt that these episodes from Oates’s early life influenced her writing. In fact, there are direct references to some of her greatest novels such as them, I’ll Take You There, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, and the author’s most well-known short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Yet, more than any direct relation these experiences may bear on her writing, the author’s upbringing formed in her mind philosophical riddles about the nature of life. Oates’s ceaseless dedication to writing and her ever-evolving forms of storytelling demonstrate her continuous quest to probe and give a new slant to these unsolvable mysteries about identity and the past.

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies: http://repository.usfca.edu/jcostudies/vol2/iss1/7/

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

It’s my birthday today and, as I explained last year, it’s a personal tradition to read a book I’ve never got around to reading for one reason or another. This year I consciously saved something until today. “Mystery, Inc” by Joyce Carol Oates was published in July this year as a standalone short story by Head of Zeus Books and part of Mysterious Press’ ‘Bibliomysteries’ series. Anyone who is familiar with the bulk of Oates’ writing knows she has a predilection for the macabre and a fascinating engagement with the tradition of gothic literature. This is most evident in her "gothic series" of five novels which first begins with "Bellefleur," but also in many of her short stories and the many novels she's written under pseudonyms. 

I can’t imagine a better story to have saved as a special treat. This book is a fantastically-enjoyable and hypnotically-narrated short crime story. It’s also a bibliophile’s dream as it centres on a beautiful old New England bookstore and includes exhaustive lists of special editions of books that are discussed with reverence: “signed first editions by John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, and S.S. Van Dine… 1888 first edition of A Study in Scarlet… first edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles…Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (priced at $75,000), signed by Dickens in his strong, assured hand, in ink that has scarcely faded!” The narrator greedily wishes to obtain these volumes himself and plays with the idea of stealing them. So surprising to read in a book someone recalling with wistful feeling the thrilling rush of shoplifting in a bookshop: “Ah, those days before security cameras!” But the narrator has visited the bookstore while wearing a disguise with the much more sinister intent of poisoning the owner so that he can eventually acquire the shop himself to add to his growing chain of mystery bookshops. The story is sumptuously detailed in its descriptions of the shop, books and artworks displayed. It provoked strong feelings of warm-hearted nostalgia in me as what reader hasn’t felt the pleasure of perusing the shelves of bookstores and all the treasures they contain?

As the plot thickens, the tension rises while the narrator talks with the gregarious owner Aaron Neuhaus over mugs of cappuccino. There is a kinship between the men, but at the same time the narrator sees himself as a predator intent on disposing of Neuhaus to take his business and he even imagines himself taking Neuhaus’ wife! He’s threatened by Neuhaus’ success, particularly the lucrative online bookselling he does. However, Neuhaus has less interest in the business side of things and is more a passionate reader who has a philosophical interest in the genre of mystery. He states that “It is out of the profound mystery of life that ‘mystery books’ arise. And, in turn, ‘mystery books’ allow us to see the mystery of life more clearly, from perspectives not our own.”

   
  
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  Aaron Neuhaus has a print of Goya's stark & haunting painting  The Dog  in his bookshop

Aaron Neuhaus has a print of Goya's stark & haunting painting The Dog in his bookshop

The tale turns as Neuhaus describes the history of his bookshop and the various ill-fates of the previous owners by tunnelling backwards in time like a ghost story about a cursed house. There is a shift in control as the narrator listens and it’s as if the predator has become the prey. The story ends in such a fascinatingly ambiguous way that left me unsettled and feeling a rush of wonder. This short story is in some ways like a compressed variation of the wonderful book-length thriller “Jack of Spades” which Oates published earlier this year. Anyone who is thrilled by this story will want to read this longer novel. It was such a joy reading "Mystery Inc" early this morning in my so-called "book nook" at the back of my apartment while drinking tea and listening to the airplanes somewhere over London humming by.

It felt so perfect and pleasurable reading Oates' story this morning that I felt connected to something greater. Not a higher intellectual or spiritual plane but that common ground of sharing a good story thrillingly told, taking part in that agreement between author and reader to indulge in a fantasy which plays upon the deepest murmurings of the subconscious. Like many people, I've encountered some difficult times in my life so I'm grateful for the peace offered by this solitude to read, participate in such enjoyable fiction and reflect.

Tonight I’m looking forward to seeing Sufjan Stevens perform at the Royal Festival Hall and having some dim sum with friends beforehand. Thanks to everyone who has been in touch with me over the past year to discuss books and suggested more things to read.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Today is Joyce Carol Oates' birthday! As a way of paying tribute to my greatest inspiration here are a selection of first sentences from her writing. You can find past reviews I've written about her latest fiction here.

The opening lines from novels and stories by Joyce Carol Oates are sometimes startling, sometimes mordantly funny, sometimes ironic, sometimes gruesome, sometimes elegantly simple and sometimes questioningly philosophical. But they all have the ability to grip you and make you want to read more.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Joyce Carol Oates has considered the issues of authorship and identity at length in both her fiction and nonfiction. For several years, Oates published novels of psychological suspense which featured twins using the pseudonym Rosamond Smith and, later, three thrillers using the pseudonym Lauren Kelly. In an essay titled ‘Pseudonymous Selves’ from her nonfiction book (Woman) Writer Oates observed “It may be that, after a certain age, our instinct for anonymity is as powerful as that for identity; or, more precisely, for an erasure of the primary self in that another (hitherto undiscovered?) self may be released.” In Jack of Spades, Oates’ protagonist is a respected writer named Andrew J. Rush who has been dubbed by the press to be the “gentlemen’s Stephen King.” As a man in his fifties with an established literary reputation, Rush unleashes just such an undiscovered self by creating the pseudonym Jack of Spades. Using this name he has published several lurid thrillers that no one would associate with his more highbrow public self. As with all pseudonyms, the secret is difficult to maintain; when Rush’s hidden persona is under the threat of being revealed his life goes awry.

Read my full review on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies: http://repository.usfca.edu/jcostudies/vol2/iss1/4/

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Given the recent much-publicized protests in America about a series of unjustified killings of black individuals at the hands of white policemen, the subject of The Sacrifice couldn’t appear any more prescient. Yet, what Oates shows in her novel is that fear, ignorance and misunderstanding is a constant presence, and is the legacy of racial tension in American society carried throughout the years and multiple generations. The media highlights particular examples of the issue regularly, and this sparks movements of public outcry and protest seeking to gain justice and correct societal imbalances. The Sacrifice traces the way incidents like this transition from the particular to the emblematic; how people at the centre of the incident are turned from individuals into symbols and are made to surrender their unique complexities as human beings; and how facts can be obfuscated for the sake of a “bigger meaning” or to progress personal agendas. Oates has created a gripping, complex story largely inspired by the case of Tawana Brawley, a black teenage girl who was found by a grand jury to have falsely accused six white men of raping her. The Sacrifice memorializes the conflicts, both internal and external, of individuals whose subjective reality is subsumed by their public identity within a movement of social change. 

Read my full review on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies: http://repository.usfca.edu/jcostudies/vol2/iss1/1/

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Many of Joyce Carol Oates’s works have featured the complexity and malformations of the American legal system, most notably her novels Do With Me What You Will (1973) and The Falls (2004). Moreover, it seems fitting that Oates has taken on the project of editing an anthology of prison fiction as her own writing has been recently engaged with the hidden reality of America’s prison system, particularly in her latest novel Carthage (2014). Here the wayward protagonist Cressida becomes an assistant to a loquacious and idealistic character dubbed the “Investigator” who is assembling material for a journalistic exposé about the prison system. In a particularly vivid scene Cressida enters a prison execution chamber while undercover and experiences a psychological crisis. No doubt Oates’s interest in representing the reality of prison life has, in part, stemmed from her time teaching at San Quentin State Prison in California. Prison Noir marks Oates’s continuing engagement and fictional exploration of such significant American institutions.

Read my full review at the online journal Bearing Witness: http://repository.usfca.edu/jcostudies/vol1/iss1/4/

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Intense passion often leads to desperate behavior in several stories included in the new Joyce Carol Oates collection Lovely, Dark, Deep.

One of the most intense and hallucinatory narratives, Distance, describes how a woman named Kathryn has crossed the country in an attempt to wean herself from her addiction to loving a man. Her range of self-deception and self-destructive behavior is seemingly boundless as she attempts to contact him in a manic frenzy. This heated inner-psychological drama directed at a seemingly anonymous person shows how the expression of love can often make more of a statement about the individual than about the object of affection. It also shows how vulnerable one is made by loving as is described in the story “‘Stephanos is Dead’” which acknowledges, So risky, to love another person! Like flaying your own, outermost skin. Exposed to the crude air and every kind of infection. Part of the reason one is made so fragile by admitting to love another person is that you might not be loved in return or that the one who is loved might stop loving you as much. This is a dilemma addressed in many stories in Oatess earlier short story collections such as The Wheel of Love (1970), Marriages and Infidelities (1972), and Will You Always Love Me? (1996), and this question is explored further in the story "The Disappearing" where a woman grows increasingly paranoid her husband is having an affair. Here she is aware that If marriage is a masquerade, there is the very real danger that masks may slip. She longs for total candor, but cannot give the trust necessary for a long term relationship to really function.

Read the rest of my review here on the site Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies: http://repository.usfca.edu/jcostudies/vol1/iss1/3/

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Very exciting news!

Randy Souther, who maintains Celestrial Timepiece, the fantastic online resource devoted to Joyce Carol Oates' work, has started a new scholarly journal that focuses on "the writing of Joyce Carol Oates and related subjects, with the goal of advancing knowledge of and deepening the conversation about Oates's massive literary project."

I've written extensively about Oates' work before and my admiration of her creative genius so it's a great privilege to be a contributing editor on this new journal and write reviews for all of Oates' new work that is published in the future. It's especially exciting to be working alongside such distinguished academics and fans of Oates' writing.

To start with, I've written a review of Oates' novel "Marya: A Life" which was first published in 1986 and has recently been reissued by HarperCollins. This is a book which Oates described as "the most 'personal' of my novels" and whose protagonist somewhat represents a quintessential character in her writing. It's a lively, episodic, coming-of-age novel that I whole-heartedly recommend.

Read my review in Volume 1 here: http://repository.usfca.edu/jcostudies/vol1/iss1/

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

The eight stories which form the new collection “High Crime Area” from Joyce Carol Oates are daring and provocative. She creates a wide range of vividly-written memorable characters including a pot-smoking widow, an arrogant famous author, a terrifyingly vicious nun, a neglected bi-racial baby, a mysterious dishevelled bookseller, a love-hungry subway passenger and a civic-minded dropout student. By creating tense and emotional tales about these individuals’ lives the author touches upon deep fears which run through American society. The depictions of heightened emotion and sensational violence are dramatic visions of our culture’s broader underlying feelings. Looming behind the particulars of these isolated struggles are institutions such as prisons, churches, orphanages and universities whose ideologies reverberate through the consciousness of the characters and create conflicts in each story. Racial tension, drug abuse, gambling addiction, sexual violence and floundering education are particular issues which run through multiple stories. It’s an admirable skill when short stories can present both micro and macro pictures of society in such a condensed amount of space. This allows a wider vision of the world to unfold out in the reader’s imagination.

In ‘The Home at CraigMillnar’ a formidable nun is found dead in her bed by an orderly who works for the elderly care facility. Her face is covered in a mysterious thin shroud. Many of the women at this home are former sisters who still attend mass and I was particularly struck by a creepy description of how “the old women’s tongues lapped eagerly at the little white wafer.” The orderly narrates the story giving an account of his experience of caring for the cantankerous woman before her death and the controversy surrounding her time administering a home for orphaned children.

A sense of deep mourning fills the story ‘High’ where late in life a woman named Agnes takes up drugs for the first time and lets her niece and her friends ransack her house. This seems to be a resigned reaction to what is perceived to be a futile existence that carries on regardless. “I am a widow, my heart has been broken. But I am still alive.” Agnes finds herself longing to re-establish a connection with a prison inmate she tutored and who she made an impact upon as if this slighted man could give meaning to her drifting life.

The very short story ‘Toad-Baby’ is a haunting family snap-shot narrated by a girl whose unbalanced single mother unleashes a torrent of abuse. The mixed race of the girl’s very young step brother is transformed into a mark of disgust by the mother and daughter. Witnessing the baby’s pain is something which permanently imprints itself upon the girl’s consciousness.

The short, darkly hallucinatory story 'Demon' appeared in another version in an earlier very short collection by Oates published in 1996. This new version has some slight changes: he's given the name Jethro, he's 19 instead of 26, there are more details about the boy's parents and, most striking of all, an extended scene is added in a bus station public lavatory which is referred to only briefly in the first version. In this location he still experiences a crisis of the self confronting his image in the mirror (the denial of the self which he attempted to suppress with prayer made unavoidably clear in the eyes staring back at him in the dirty mirror), but he also has a violent sexual encounter with a minister which is interrupted by someone who enters the lavatory. Part of his subsequent scorn by those around him is tinged with homophobia. In this new version its made more explicit that physical signs which demarcate him as other or “cursed” and “demon-like” (the prominent birth mark, red hair, stunted-growth) as well as social stigmas which have been attached to him are differences used as excuses by external social forces to ostracise and demonise him. Because, of course, there is nothing essentially evil about him or anyone; there are only the strictures people impose upon each other borne out of their own fear and dogmatic principles. Tellingly in this new version his physical reaction to a shocking attempt to rid himself of what he's come to believe is an inherent demon-curse has changed. What was described as resulting in “no pain” in the first version is now a “pain so colossal it could not be measured – like the sky.” This doesn't so accurately describe the physical sensation of his misguidedly destructive self-ameliorating act, but reflects the pain which results from continuous self-punishment for not living up to the idealized standards we create for ourselves and that are formed out of social pressures to conform. The story prompts us to question why we do this to ourselves. Tragically Jethro’s act represents a definitive decision to never look at his true self again. 

In the story ‘Lorelei’ a provocatively dressed young woman rides the subway in search of a specific unknown and unnamed “you” or someone to love her. The claustrophobic environment of the train carriages with their jostling passengers all making mental judgments upon each other and guarding their own personal space is vividly and accurately described. Like a darker “glossy black” haired mirror version of Marilyn Monroe’s character from ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’, Lorelei flirts and yearns so fiercely to find that special one and aches with such yearning for someone to complete her. It’s a quest destined to destroy her.

One of the stories which particularly moved me is the complex sombre story ‘The Rescuer.’ Here a young university student named Lydia is called upon by her parents to visit her troubled brother Harvy. Once he was a promising pupil at a seminary school, but dropped out and moved to a dilapidated apartment in a depressed neighbourhood of Trenton, New Jersey. At first she is reluctant to take on the responsibility of visiting him, but once she’s there her life becomes irretrievably intertwined with his own. The siblings retreat from the institutions for higher learning that supported them and instead turn inward, Harvy working on intensely-laboured poetry and Lydia on unpicking the meaning and possible translations of ancient text about infanticide. Because of her brother’s drug and gambling habits their lives become entangled with an intimidating local man named Leander with a Maori facial tattoo and long dreadlocks and his mischievous sister who has a penchant for going to casinos. Lydia is seduced by the prospect of abandoning the torturous mental effort of her studies: “I thought how easy life is for those who merely live it without hoping to understand it; without hoping to ‘decode,’ classify and analyze it; without hoping to acquire a quasi-invulnerable meta-life which is the life of the mind and not the triumphant life of the body” The story presents a kind of crisis about the real value of an intellectual life and how the quest for knowledge can be rendered meaningless in the ruthless decimation of the weak over the strong in the human species’ quest for survival.  “Individuals die, life endures. A copy of a text is destroyed but another takes its place – just like us.” Writers and scholars scribble away in faith that their contribution will provide a further piece to assist in the evolution of humanity. The story asks what happens if that faith peters out. Even without it the narrator finds that “working diligently and even obsessively without faith did not seem to me a terrible fate, when the alternative was yet more terrible.” Although the brother and sister’s preoccupations are wholly their own they find the compulsion to articulate meaning (even if it doesn’t contribute to a greater whole) is better than a life of total resignation.

In ‘The Last Man of Letters’ an extremely famous male author only referred to as X goes on a European book tour. He takes perverse pleasure in humiliating the women who praise him and his work. His perpetually macho antagonistic stance goes unchallenged due to his awestruck admirers’ reverence for a man that has been bombastically proclaimed to be the “last man of letters.” Parades of anonymous unnamed women populate his imagination and marital bed, so many that “the effort of trying to make sense of it exhausted him, and disgusted him.” As an asthmatic he sometimes chokes for breath with the sense that he’s fighting for his life. The vile hatred he spews at the women around him is like the chilling sound of a man gasping for air. In what might be an oxygen-starved hallucination the women he’s shamed visit him in his hotel room. A breathlessly narrated scene of orgiastic excess ensues where X is plied with rich food and eager flesh by the rapacious ladies which results in a judiciously horrific conclusion.

A young white teacher who moves to Detroit asks herself “Why am I so preoccupied with racial identities, skin ‘colours’?” It’s the Spring before the Detroit riots of 1967 and this woman, Mz Mc’tyre, senses the mounting racial tension in the collection’s title story ‘High Crime Area.’ She’s witnessed the dwindling white population moving from the city into the suburbs and has a mounting fear of being attacked which escalates after reading a paper from a female student about her imprisoned cousin who has converted to “Black Islam” and expresses extremist ideas. While walking to her car she senses a man following her. She has a gun concealed in her bag. The story is incredibly suspenseful and the conclusion is utterly surprising.

The book “High Crime Area” is a seductive read with its entrancing array of voices and innovative forms of narrative. The stories draw us into danger to provide a thrilling read which challenges our assumptions.

Read a short interview with Oates at Mystery Center: http://www.mysterycenter.com/2014/04/01/Interview-with-Joyce-Carol-Oates

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson